The Wilson Thunderbird was hardly a slug, however. Yarborough qualified second-fastest, at 203.814 mph, and won the second of the two 125-milers on Thursday. As the 500 began, the front row brace of T-Birds pulled away from the second-row Chevy of David Pearson, while three other noted GM drivers began working up from 19th, 31st and 34th starting positions, respectively: Bonnett and the new Winston Cup champion, Terry Labonte, in their Chevys, and Bobby Allison in a Buick.
After 10 laps Elliott was setting a white-hot 199.557-mph pace. Elliott's first pit stop for gas was at 35 laps, 23 of which he had led. But after 50, Yarborough was in front, with Richard Petty third, 17 seconds behind Elliott. Then came Allison, Labonte, and Richard's son Kyle Petty in a Thunderbird.
An Ernie Elliott-built engine hasn't failed in a race since March 27, 1983, and he'd been wise enough to adjust the carburetor to a richer setting on race morning, because the gorgeous 70° day was hotter by 10° than any other during Speed Weeks. Swiftness was a given, reliability would be brother Bill's ultimate weapon. The Thunderbird began driving the other cars into the pavement one by one. First Kyle Petty pitted with an oil leak, and then Yarborough retired because of a burned piston. "I looked up and saw him dropping to the bottom of the ractrack," said Elliott, "but I really didn't have no feelin's about it one way or the other. Richard [Petty] was runnin' second then, and how many Daytonas has he won?" Seven, Bill.
Stars fell from the high banks left and right. Petty's Pontiac caught fire and jammed in fourth gear during a pit stop; Allison blew his engine; Dale Earnhardt blew his engine—"That smoking you saw was my elbows, from trying to hold the car on the track," he said; Benny Parsons burned a piston; A.J. Foyt's engine seized; Pearson burned a piston. The 195-mph pace of Elliott's 'Bird was getting to them.
When the smoke settled, Bonnett had bulled his way to second. He's a racer's racer, a tough, fair, no-excuses kind of guy. His qualifying speed had been third-fastest (202.584), but he'd started 19th after tire troubles in his 125-miler. "I just can't tell myself I'm racing for second," he said on the eve of the race. "We're going to come up with something. Nobody's unbeatable."
But Bonnett's Chevy was vibrating, and Elliott maintained a 37-second lead. Until he pitted on Lap 144, that is. Elliott was held in the pit by NASCAR officials as his crew was made to tape a loose headlight cover, and the stop took 41.2 seconds. It would not have been beyond NASCAR to detain the leader simply to make the race more exciting. However, neither would it have been beyond a crew to deliberately start the race with a loose headlight cover, which might conveniently fall aside during the proceedings—and let more cool air reach the engine on a warm day. Whatever, Elliott rejoined the race 20 seconds behind Bonnett.
Just before the 500, George Elliott had said, "You just work real hard and look for your day when everything goes your way." For him and his sons, this was going to be that day. Bill got a big break when a yellow light came out on Lap 162, enabling him to close to Bonnett's bumper. They both stopped for gas, and it was borderline whether they could go the remaining distance without stopping again—closer to the border for Elliott, because his richer fuel mixture meant poorer mileage. When the green came on, Elliott passed Bonnett—"The mother blew right by me!" Bonnett exclaimed over the radio to his crew chief—but Bonnett scooted back past Elliott, and stayed in the lead for eight laps as Elliott shrewdly stayed tight in Bonnett's draft to conserve fuel.
Another yellow came out on Lap 174, and Elliott could breathe easy after taking on gas. When the green came out on Lap 176, it was adios, Bonnett, as Elliott began cutting laps in the 198-mph range.
There was one more yellow. This one was for Bonnett, when the engine in his Monte Carlo went poof in Turn 4. "It dumped stuff onto the tires, and all I could do was hang on," he said. Which he did as the car slid all the way past the grandstands that held a goodly portion of the crowd of 140,000.
With one lap remaining, the green light came back on. Lake Speed, a former karting champion, had scrapped his way to second. "It came just in time," he said later, with moist eyes. There had been no sponsor—no money—on the evening before the race. But both had come along at the last minute and Speed, who won $85,705, can see a full-season campaign shaping up. Third, a lap down, was Darrell Waltrip in a Chevy.